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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Oct. 28, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

This post won’t save journalism. (Sorry.)

No tool will. And that’s okay.

Every few weeks, the new media hype cycle begins again. Some new tool or website comes out that makes some technically difficult aspect of news-gathering or production much simpler, and then that old questionWill it save journalism? — gets asked again, analyzed for a few days, and kicked to the curb under ridicule from obnoxious snarkmongers like myself.

While it’s usually right to celebrate the “it” in the will-it-save-journalism game — when the “it” in question, that is, is a legitimately awesome new tool for making things — it’s also worth considering what we’re saying when we talk about “saving journalism” in the first place. What we’re really looking for is something that will tame the complex work of reporting itself. What we see in each new tool is the frothy hope that it will be, somehow, The One.

But it never will be. There is no tool that will make the journalism simple. But that’s actually a good thing. Here’s why.

In 1975, Fred Brooks came out with a book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. The collection remains a pertinent classic, since we developers have a remarkable talent for continually making the same mistakes. The title essay demolishes the practice of estimating a programming task as man-months of work evenly divided among a team. Reality is rarely so obliging. (For instance, adding people to a late project will actually make it later, since those newcomers need to be brought up to speed by the workers already behind schedule.) In 1986, Brooks added an essay to the collection, “No Silver Bullet,” which explored why programming is so hard for most people. Shouldn’t there by now be programming tools so simple that any novice can code whatever they want? Shouldn’t all journalists be programmers? In programming, difficulty is almost always synonymous with complexity — but programming has remained difficult despite decades of progress in hardware speeds and software techniques. Why?

The best hope is to grow the skills of developers. Invest in people rather than in tools.

To answer that, Brooks pulled the concepts of accident and essence all the way back from Aristotle. The accidental complexity of software development, he said, involves those problems attendant to the production of code but not related to what the code is meant to do. Programming long ago involved writing tedious, low-level assembly language for computers with comically limited operations and memory. Since then, we’ve seen numerous advances like compilers, higher-level languages, new programming paradigms, comprehensive open-source tools, and an astounding increase of computing power each year.

All those major advances in computer science, Brooks argues, have been advances against the accidental complexity of writing programs. But the essential complexity of conceptualizing those programs remains unchecked. There is no tool (or, to bring a much-needed werewolf reference into the discussion, a “silver bullet“) that will save programming from its essential complexity, he declares; the best hope is instead to grow the skills of developers. Invest in people rather than in tools.

Despite our best hopes, good journalism remains hard, and there is no silver bullet that will mitigate that.

Sound familiar? Newspapers aren’t assembling their editions with hot lead anymore. On the web, quick and dirty hacks we hand-coded a few years ago are the frameworks of today and the nostalgia of tomorrow. On top of that, we occasionally get new tools that further chip away at some of the accidental complexity of digital journalism. But the essential complexity remains. Despite our best hopes, good journalism remains hard, and there is no silver bullet that will mitigate that. But that’s actually a good thing.

Accidentally complex processes are repeatable and predictable; the tools can be improved because the problems are known. The essential complexity in journalism is there because good journalism is by its definition not something that’s been done before. Yes, there are new tools for slideshows and timelines. Even tools for generic reporting like game recaps are coming, but a tool can’t explain why the team has been choking lately or explore the troubling rise in concussions across the sport. A tool might be able to create a shiny artistic jumble for you, but it can’t find you the story in there or explain to your readers why they should care. The essential complexity is not to be abhorred, it’s to be celebrated. So embrace that. Stop hoping for a silver bullet. Learn to program. And remember, no tool will save journalism.

You will.

Image by Daniel Goude used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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